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Comedy with a sting: ‘Bye-Bye Bakersfield,’ ‘Duplicity City’

New novels by Jan Baross and Keith Scales dive deeply into the comic spirit and its nervous underpinnings in a world where things go wrong.

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It’s August, which means we’re all supposed to be curled up at the beach with a picnic basket and a “summer read.” The idea of a “summer book” – something light, diverting, and of little consequence, like a pink bubbly wine – has always seemed a bit odd to me: Why not take the time to soak in, say, The Brothers Karamazov or Demon Copperhead or Wide Sargasso Sea?

Contrarily, what’s wrong with a spot of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves or a Walter Mosley mystery or another run through The Wind in the Willows to take the damp and chill off a January day? A good book is a good book, light or dense, comic or tragic, summer or winter or in between.

Which brings me to two recent novels – Portland writer Jan Baross’s Bye-Bye Bakersfield, and Duplicity City: An Overlook Misadventure, by the former standout Portland actor Keith J. Scales, who escaped a few years ago to the Ozarks, where he’s settled into a writing life.

Both could be called “summer reads”: They’re comedies, in a broad sense. And like all good comedy, each in its own way also delves into deeper waters, places of complexity and unease. Like a Jane Austen novel or one of Walter R. Brooks’s slyly satirical Freddy the Pig books (although with utterly different modus operandi) they can leave you laughing just a little nervously.

“Bye-Bye Bakersfield”

Baross’s quick-paced novel, in the form of a memoir following the escapades and travails of a precocious young woman from her grade-school days in the 1950s through the misadventures of her senior prom in 1961, leaps lightly from incident to incident in the formation, or perhaps the discovery, of her true self.

Small, parched, ingrown Bakersfield (where the author grew up) seems in this series of interlinked tales like something of a horrible accident, at least for this family, and especially for our heroine’s mother, who longs for a more cosmopolitan life. And yet it also becomes, in an important sense, well and truly home: the place that shapes you, and the place that you can never entirely leave.

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Jan Baross, hanging with a couple of friends in London.

The family has moved from the paradise of the San Francisco Bay to this supposed backwater so that Father, a doctor, can set up his own practice. But the move comes under protest and with certain cautions and curtailments, as Mother makes plain: “We don’t make waves in public. … Unmade waves are the key to your Jewish survival kit. Keep your heads down. Don’t stand out. Never complain. And, if you want friends in this godforsaken town, do not tell people you’re a Democrat.”

And yet our heroine is a natural wave-making machine. From showing up for her first day in school with a shaved head because of ringworm (and audaciously triumphing over the jeering young louts) to various scraps and alliances in her strange new neighborhood, the wryly related tales in Bye-Bye Bakersfield feel at first a bit like the droll and exaggerated adventures in Jean Shepherd’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, on which the movie A Christmas Story is based: a light, nostalgic look at the presumed horrors of childhood, which from an adult perspective seem not so horrible, and rather comical in retrospect.

But as time passes and experiences pile up, the comedy, while still there, deepens. This is a coming-of-age tale, and the lessons of growing up do not come easily: One can find deceptions and cruelty and heartbreak not just in the surrounding world, but also in one’s own responses to that world. The adventures and adventurers that arise range broadly from best friends and boyfriends to peculiar and perhaps dangerous adults to falling in with the “oddball” gay theater crowd to crashing a gathering of the John Birch Society to meeting Jack Kennedy (she wishes it were Teddy) to a whirlwind tour of Europe and Israel and the Wailing Wall to an untimely death and more.

At each step something sticks with her and becomes a part of her. A kind of wisdom accrues, and with it both a sadness and a liberation. Through Baross’s smooth and funny but never glib narration we remain always in step with our first-person heroine and her sometimes hard-earned discoveries about herself and the world around her. We like her, and we pull for her, and we feel a bit anxious for her, because somehow she’s gathered depth and become complex and real. She’s become, as literary characters sometimes do, a friend – summer, spring, winter or fall.

***

Jan Baross has two readings from Bye-Bye Bakersfield coming up in Portland:

  • Aug. 17, 7-8:30 p.m.: Mother Foucault’s Bookstore, 523 S.E. Morrison St.
  • Sept. 6, 7-9 p.m.: Eastside Jewish Commons, 2420 N.E. Sandy Blvd.

“Duplicity City: An Overlook Misadventure”

If Bye-Bye Bakersfield is something of a literary sprint, Scales’ Duplicity City is an amble, always moving forward but in a circular motion, taking its time and remarking about the undergrowth along the narrative path. Officially a murder mystery, in a larger sense it’s a comedy of manners, or ill manners, or odd manners, and it quietly revels in the outrageousness of its terrain.

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Its main character is not the drunken sheriff or the bumptious newspaper editor or the biscuit-baking operator of the Buttercup Diner or the nervous veterinarian or even the long-lost twin or the slicked-back outsider sprung from prison or the boy with the baseball bat. It’s the town of Overlook City itself, an unlikely congregation of unlikely souls in an unlikely, out-of-the way location.

Exactly where this fictional town is, besides somewhere way-to-hell-and-gone, is never quite clear, although it could be somewhere in the Pacific Northwest: In the book’s dedication Scales thanks the Oregon and Washington Humanities Commissions “for sending me all around two states to give Chautauqua presentations in towns with names like Drain, Halfway and Hole-in-the-Ground, from which experience Overlook City emerged.”

Keith Scales. Photo: Rebecca J. Becker

What Scales has created is a rambling, lopsided, hound-dog of a second or third cousin to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, but with a comic, tall-tale accent. Something sets this small town apart from any other small town – except, one suspects, that it is also very much like many other insular towns on any map you care to peruse. “Overlook City,” Scales writes, “is referred to throughout the region as ‘Oddball Central,’ ‘Best Overlooked’ or ‘Where?’ And though many have heard of Overlook City few have been there, while those who have not, have no interest.”

An inconsequential speck of a town, then. And yet, if you belong you belong, and if you don’t you don’t – and therein lies both its strength and its weakness. People in Overlook City may have quirks a mile wide, but everybody knows about ’em and pretty much accepts ’em, and if anything starts to look like it might get out of hand, it’s nothing another beer or whiskey at the Cattledrive saloon can’t handle.

Scales lopes through this territory drily and easily, tongue planted laconically in cheek, letting his characters speak floridly for themselves, as when Sheriff Wilmot bursts into the Cattledrive and proceeds to deputize pretty much every drunk he can find: “Shorty – first job – git on over to Doc Fredericks and tell anyone you find there we need ‘em up to the crazy Dixon house – especially the doc. We found something pretty ugly down a well and we need all the help we can get to haul it out.” Then, to the bartender: “Red, gimme a quick one.”

The town gives, and the town takes away. It’s as small and mean as a mite and as big and human as the universe. Sex, though never explicit, is a big factor in the town’s life, along with generosity and stinginess and hard work and sloth and compassion and rigidity and narrow-mindedness and devotion to the way things are done around here. The rest of the world’s wrong, pretty much: The rest of the world’s where trouble comes from. And as you’re reading you can see both the danger and the allure of it all.

Oh – about the murder(s)? Well, there was this thing happened round about twenty years back, see, up to the crazy house on the hill where the crazy artist lived, and the twin sisters and the boyfriend and the one twin who got strangled; and the boyfriend swore up and down he didn’t do nothin’ but he still landed in the slammer, and then, well, that was just the beginning …

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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